Happy Birthday Euratom!
Two treaties were signed in Rome on 25 March 1957, but at the celebrations marking the 50th birthday of the European Union this year, one is guaranteed to get far more attention than the other.
While the more famous of the treaties established the European Economic Community (EEC), later to become the European Community (EC) and then the European Union (EU), a second created the European Atomic Energy Community, more commonly known then and now as Euratom.
It is no wonder that the EEC Treaty will be at the forefront of the celebrations - it was the beginning of the most ambitious project ever to create a supranational community of sovereign states. Members were willing to hand over at least some of their national competences to a set of institutions based predominantly in Brussels.
But the creation of Euratom, and its 50-year existence, are also no mean feat. CORDIS News spoke to Simon Webster, Head of Unit for Nuclear Fission and Radiation Protection within the European Commission's Research DG, to find out more about Euratom's history, as well as its future.
'European research' was conceived for the first time in the Euratom Treaty, and it put in place the provisions for the Community research programmes that were to follow later. 'It was very innovative at the time. We have to thank the founders of the Treaty for their vision in this regard,' says Mr Webster.
Though comprising the same Member States, Euratom is juridically distinct from the rest of the European Community. It uses the same institutions, but the major difference is that while the European Parliament is consulted, the Council alone acts as the legislature. When is comes to the adoption of the Euratom research programmes, the Member States need to agree unanimously. This was not so much of a problem when there were only six Member States, but it can be a different story now that there are 27.
Euratom has eight tasks, or areas of competence, as set out in the Treaty. These include establishing uniform safety standards to protect workers and members of the public, facilitating investment in and ensuring the establishment of the basic installations necessary for developing nuclear energy, ensuring that all users receive a regular and equitable supply of ores and nuclear fuels, and making sure that civil nuclear materials are not used for military purposes.
Another task is research. The Community is charged with promoting research and ensuring the dissemination of technical information. Under the Seventh Euratom Framework Programme for nuclear research and training, which runs from 2007 until 2011, a funding envelope of €2,751 million is available, of which €1,947 million is for fusion research (including ITER), €517 million for the nuclear activities of the Joint Research Centre (which was set up under the Treaty), and €287 million for indirect actions in nuclear fission and radiation protection, for which the Commission publishes calls for proposals at regular intervals.
Unlike funding for the larger European Community framework programme and (thanks to ITER) that for fusion research, which have increased substantially, Euratom's budgetary increases in the area of nuclear fission and radiation protection have merely stayed level with inflation. 'This will impact on our effectiveness, and the ability of Europe as a whole to keep pace with the nuclear renaissance worldwide,' says Mr Webster. In addition, because of the different legal bases, the Euratom programme does not have access to some of the additional funding mechanisms available under the EC framework programmes.
The fusion community has also managed to come together more than the fission community. In fact, 'Fusion is the only area, including those in the non-nuclear field, where there is a true European Research Area. This is mainly because there are no national interests at stake in fusion. In fission we can have the same problems as any other area - fragmentation and duplication,' says Mr Webster. Another important difference is that while Euratom provides between 30% and 40% of funding for fusion research in Europe, the figure is more like 5% for fission.
Asked what Euratom has achieved over the last 50 years, Mr Webster cites the joint execution of research and in particular the increased structuring effect of the Community programmes, for example in the management of radioactive waste and geological disposal. Safe management and disposal of radioactive waste is a problem faced by all EU countries, as hospitals as well as nuclear power stations produce it. The shared challenge has therefore made research very amenable to EU funding.
The structuring referred to by Mr Webster is set to be strengthened further, as two potential European Technology Platforms are in the pipeline. This willingness to collaborate more tightly, certainly in the area of development of new reactor technology, demonstrates a clear desire and need within the research sector to act at a Community level, believes Mr Webster.
The most effective cooperation is in those fields where there are shared concerns amongst Member States, such as waste and nuclear safety, or where the research is more fundamental and less applied, with commercialisation being a long way down the line (which includes fusion). With growing concerns over energy, there is also increased interest in the area of innovative fission technology. 'What is being achieved here in Euratom is impressive, and despite the limited budget our collaborative actions are making a major contribution. Once we move to industrial deployment, commercial competition and IPR [intellectual property rights] issues will naturally put a brake on the extent of cooperation as well as the need for Community support,' Mr Webster told CORDIS News.
In addition, Euratom research has supported extensive studies on health effects including the medical and industrial uses of ionising radiation, and actively supports training initiatives and the diffusion of knowledge across the whole nuclear science field.
Projects funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) include ESDRED, which is investigating various repository construction techniques. The 13-partner, €18.4 million project is examining the engineering and technological development in the construction of repositories for the disposal of radioactive waste several hundred metres below the Earth's surface.
RISC-RAD is attempting to quantify the risks associated with low and protracted doses of radiation. Knowledge of the effects of low radiation doses has significantly more gaps than knowledge on high-intensity exposure. In particular, the consortium is focusing on damage to DNA, genomic instability and radiation-induced cancer.
The side-effects of radiation are tackled from a different angle by the PERFECT project. In nuclear power stations, components are frequently exposed to radiation that limits their operation life. Combining understanding of the phenomena involved and computer sciences have resulted in tools capable of simulating the effects of irradiation on the mechanical and corrosion properties of materials. The PERFECT team is further developing these predictive tools and applying them to reactor pressure vessels and internal structures.
Continuing the work initiated by several smaller EC-supported projects since 1998, the RAPHAEL Integrated Project meanwhile is addressing the performance of individual system elements involved in an innovative system for the next generation of nuclear power plants, as well as its viability. The Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) would supply both electricity and heat for industrial applications.
Despite criticism of the Euratom Treaty as a result of its sidelining of the European Parliament, nobody is expecting any changes to the Euratom Treaty for the foreseeable future. Changes would require unanimity amongst the Member States, which is unthinkable in the current climate, where national sensitivities over nuclear issues mean that countries simply agree to disagree regarding the more promotional aspects of the Treaty. But in the current climate of concern over energy supply and damage to the environment from carbon emissions, now might be an opportune moment to reflect on what Euratom has achieved, and what else nuclear research could do for Europe.
For further information, please visit:
Text: 2007-04-CordisFocusItem-Cover page-Lead
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News interview with Simon Webster
Document Reference: Based on a CORDIS News interview with Simon Webster
Programme or Service Acronym: ~#VAL 6 EN_NEWS.EN_PGA_A
Subject Index: Nuclear Fission; Scientific Research
CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities.